Elephants practice the buddy system: one leads the pack, the rest follow in pairs, each trunk curled snugly around the tail of the one in front. And as they round Constitution Avenue, onto Third Street, a squeal is heard from the sidelines for 21 elephants loping steadily down the street, graceful in their own way.

Horses and ponies trot in line behind. Two young zebras step smartly, and a llama the color of a Haitian cotton sofa struts elegantly, peering straight ahead as if from the back of a limousine. The camels galumph at the rear of the line.

Zipping by this procession is a yellow-costumed clown on skates who pretends he's going to careen into a policeman, whistle poised in mouth, who has stopped the ordinary traffic for the extraordinary traffic. The policeman doesn't budge.

The circus has come to town. And right on time, too.

It's exactly 11 a.m. when the traditional Animal Walk to the D.C. Armory reaches the front of the U.S. Capitol, sedate in the cold morning sunlight. Bystanders include clumps of little children, suited against the brisk air, who watch in either dazed delight or stunned silence. "Camel," says one child profoundly from his perch on his father's shoulders. "That's right," his father confirms for him. "Camel."

All of the animals but the tigers--which are not allowed out of their cages except to perform--participate in this three-mile walk, accompanied by their trainers, from the Eckington Train Yard to the Armory, where the circus is playing.

The walk pauses at the Capitol to deposit a few people who have literally come along for the ride. David Gergen, White House communications director, who had smiled so bravely from high atop an elephant, leaves the procession here. "It's a long ride," Rodney Huey, circus public relations officer, said later, "and it's pretty windy up there."

Gergen, in red T-shirt, had ridden with 4-year-old Scott Brady, son of White House Press Secretary James S. Brady. Gergen's children, Katherine, 9, and Chris, 12, each accompanied by a clown, rode on separate elephants and chatted away, totally relaxed. When Gergen and Scott Brady disembarked, photographers and reporters swooped down on them. "He's a real trouper," says Gergen, carrying the young Brady, "just like his dad."

Asked how he liked the ride, Gergen says, "It was exciting." The Gergen ride was purchased for $250 at a benefit auction for the James S. Brady Presidential Foundation more than a week ago at Germaine's restaurant. (Gergen's and Scott's red T-shirts bore the title of the foundation.) Former White House aide Joe Canzieri, now a public relations consultant, outbid Sander Vanocur for the pleasure of seeing Gergen on the elephant.

"He was a bit apprehensive at the beginning," Huey said later. "He said, 'Someone's got to tell me how to do this.' By the end, he looked like a pro."

The elephants were supposed to do a long mount in front of the Capitol. That's where the elephants line up and one puts his front legs on the back of the other all the way down the line. But elephant trainer Axel Gautier decided against it. "There were so many people, so many reporters," explained Huey later. "Somebody might get stepped on. It was too dangerous."

Children swarm the animals for a closer look. One patient elephant blinks a bleary-looking red eye at the crowds. He has beige ears with dark gray spots on them. Behind these clustered elephants it is not a pretty sight. "Pee-yew!" cries one candid youngster.

The walk continues down Independence Avenue past House office buildings. Here the onlookers are older and taller. Some watch from balconies. Two red-jacketed young women applaud as the camels go by.

This is not a good day for the camels, despite the attention--in fact, because of the attention.

"They're doing very badly," says assistant animal handler Don Holt as he grips the reins on one. "Too many people." Saleem is having the hardest time. She is quietly foaming at the mouth and has crooked her camel's neck into an awkward, leaning-back position as if resisting the rein. She ends up nudging a fellow camel as she walks. "She spooks at the slightest thing," says Holt. "And it's a little cold for them."

"Saleem!" Holt calls to her firmly, holding her rein. (How do you spell that? "Hell if I know," says Holt.) But she and the others proceed at a brisk clip to the Armory, making Holt and Roger Wood, another assistant trainer, jog a little to keep up. "Faster we get there, the more time we get off," says Holt.

"That's not much," says Wood.

Saleem, on the other hand, has a dinner of hay and sweet feed to look forward to later in the afternoon.

On East Capitol Street the entourage is greeted by wild cheering from grade-schoolers from St. Peter's who flank the street, shouting out the name of each group of animals passing. "Whenever something happens--the hostages or whatever--we're out on the curb," says one of their teachers, Catherine Lipka.

A woman standing on 11th Street, holding the hand of a young boy, looks out East Capitol, now quiet as the procession disappears out of sight. "You see, you didn't have to go to the circus," she says, smiling, to the boy. "The circus came to you."